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CRC clears legal hurdle, financial questions remain

Oregon Supreme Court rules Metro followed law in approving controversial project

The Columbia River Crossing project cleared a legal hurdle Thursday but still has many financial question to answer before it can be built.

On Feb. 16 the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the Metro Council did not exceed its statutory when it approved the I-5 bridge and freeway improvement project under a streamlined process known as a land Use Final Order (LUFO). The Oregon Legislature created the LUFO process to eliminate jurisdictional fights over the route of an earlier north-south light rail plan. The council ruled the new light rail line from Portland to Vancouver that is part of the project was, in fact, a portion of the north-south route.

In December 2011, that premise and the resulting decision was challenged by a number of project opponents, including businesses in the Jantzen Beach area that could be affected by the project, a coalition of environmental and social justice organization, and the coalition of city neighborhood organization in North Portland. They appealed the decision to the state land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), which sided with Metro. The opponents then appealed LUBA decision to the Oregon Supreme Court, which sided with LUBA.

Under the ruling, an urban growth boundary issue between Metro and TriMet remains to be resolved. Since both parties support the project, that is not expected to delay it.

The project is intended to improve safety and reduce congestion in a five-mile stretch of I-5 that includes the bridge over the Columbia River. The current version would replace the bridge with a wider new one that include a light rail line and improved access for pedestrians and bicyclists. It also involved freeway interchange improvements, including better access to and from Jantzen Beach.

The project is currently estimated at $2.4 billion. That is the latest figure announced by project staff and represents a reduction from earlier estimated in the $3.6 billion to $4.2 billion range. The largest savings came from freeway interchange work that could be undertaken later.

The financial plan calls for it to be funded by a combination of federal, state and toll funds. Congress has yet to commit to the project, however, and neither have the Oregon and Washington legislatures. Voters in parts of Clark County must approve funding for the Washington portion of the light rail plan, too.

Despite the unresolved funding issues, pre-construction is scheduled to begin early this year.